October 25, 2002

African Symposium Addresses Reform

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Declaring that successful democratic reform in Africa must be managed by Africans, Justice Johann Kriegler delivered the keynote address last night for this weekend’s symposium on reform and poverty alleviation in Africa.

Kriegler, who serves on the Constitutional Court of South Africa, spoke to an audience of 150 in the Biotechnology Building yesterday about the perils and prospects of African development. Kriegler’s lecture kicked off a weekend of debate and discussion, involving scholars, lawyers, economists and political scientists from around the world.

Kriegler’s talk emphasized new approaches to an old, increasingly severe problem.

“Any reference to developing countries in Africa is a misnomer, if not a lie,” he said, setting the tone for an evening of critical re-examination of past and present development initiatives.

The conference, entitled “Democratic Reform in Africa: Impact on Governance and Poverty Alleviation,” runs through Saturday. It is sponsored by the Institute for African Development, the Poverty, Inequality and Development Initiative and the Center for Democratic Performance, in conjunction with the Einaudi Center for International Studies, the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs and the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.

Best known for chairing South Africans electoral commission in 1994 during the country’s first racially inclusive elections, Kriegler serves on South Africa’s highest court.

Championing the work of economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, Kriegler prescribed a new formula for African development based on the facilitation of participatory democracy and the development of political and legal norms in African nations. Kriegler recognized the establishment of functioning democracy as an engine for economic renewal.

“Civil rights are crucial in guaranteeing equal economic rights, which are vital to establishing broad based economic democracy,” he said, acknowledging the work of Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics.

In presenting his vision for African restoration, Kriegler advocated a bottom-up approach built around small businesses, a marked departure from the top-down, external initiatives of prior decades. Kriegler faulted organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations for “toiling mightily” and “spending billions of dollars” in Africa to little or no effect.

Much of the wealth that has been devoted to African development has been squandered in the hands of corrupt African regimes, unequipped to handle the great responsibility of allocating the money, according to Kriegler.

“Great harm is done by sticking cash in the deep pockets of government agencies lacking the capacity to absorb and dispense such funds,” he said. “The beneficence becomes a curse.”

As an alternative, Kriegler supported investment in small businesses, grassroots initiatives and traditional African authorities in order to reintegrate the people of Africa into the process of reform.

“The days of Africans wagging their tails for their master’s approval have passed,” he said. “Gifts from across the water will always be regarded with suspicion.”

Recognizing African scholars who advocate a form of “black consciousness” and the rejection of democratic reform altogether, Kriegler urged the United States and Europe to pursue a more “subtle” and “indirect” course in affecting change on the continent.

Kriegler did however validate the inherent African mistrust of foreign intervention identifying “the AK-47 and the landmine” as the two most profound legacies of Africa’s involvement with the developed world. “With more reason than Americans have, Africans are suspicious of foreigners with strange accents and different pigmentation,” he said.

“Kriegler addressed the issues in a frank and decisive manner,” said Francis Kim ’03.

Judith February, a lawyer for the Institute of Democracy in South Africa, praised Kriegler, but said his speech broke no new ground.

“In South Africa, we are talking about these issues all the time,” she said. “Kriegler’s speech was good, but it was nothing unexpected,” February said.

Presentations on democratic reform in Africa are to be held in Clark Hall and will run through Saturday.

Archived article by Jason Leff